School Choice:

A Page Covering Local and Town-Gown Issues

Although participating in Weld's plan could prove lucrative, Cambridge is sitting it out for the moment, for fear of endangering its quality school system.

Ten years ago, Cambridge school administrators pioneered a new system of school organization--a program which, in the wake of President Bush's Education 2000 plan for school choice, has become a model for like structures around the country.

The "controlled choice" program which they developed is widely recognized as having solved the problem of racial imbalance in Cambridge public schools by means of peaceful, voluntary desegregation.

But now Cambridge faces another tough school choice decision: whether to participate in the Weld administration's new statewide program.

The state scheme supported by Gov. William F. Weld '66 parallels the controlled choice system in that it allows parents in participating districts to send their children to other public schools besides their neighborhood one and would probably prove lucrative for Cambridge.


The plan transfers state education funds out of the treasuries of school systems which lose students and into the treasuries of those which attract students.

But for the moment, Cambridge is keeping its distance from the statewide program, choosing not to risk compromising its own high educational standards by letting in students from neighboring cities and towns.

"We have decided that at this time there are too many unclear issues," said Mary Lou McGrath, superintendent of Cambridge schools. "We'll wait a year and then reconsider the plan."

A Model System

The Cambridge choice system sprang to life 10 years ago, when School Committee members realized their system was in trouble.

Unless they could find a way to meet state racial balance laws, Cambridge's schools would have faced court-mandated desegregation--a course which had caused chaos across the river in Boston a few years earlier.

Rather than face the street rioting and bus stonings which had plagued Boston, the committee decided to scrap the old system of assigning students to neighborhood schools in favor of a radical new program they called "controlled choice."

The program, which allows parents to choose any of Cambridge's 14 public elementary schools, has met with such success in the years since that educators across the nation are praising the system as a model of successful voluntary desegregation.

Cambridge's controlled choice plan drew attention because it wipes out traditional school districts and replaces them with a system in which parents list three of the city's 14 elementary schools as their top choices. Students are then assigned to one of the three, provided that the racial balance of the school remains on keel.

Since the program went into full effect in September 1981, performance on basic skills tests has improved and attendance in the elementary schools is up, said Robert Peterkin, who was superintendent of Cambridge schools from 1984 to 1988. Peterkin now heads the Urban Superintendent's program at the Graduate School of Education.

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